Grandpa Joe, me, my sister Shannon, and the one and only Grandma Gracie

Grandpa, me, my sister Shannon, and the one and only “Gram”, Florida, 1983

My grandmother, my dad’s mother, was a fierce Italian woman who hugged too tightly and never hesitated to tell you what was on her mind. She fed us too well and despite the fact that she was only 4′ 11″, her footsteps were like that of an elephant’s (she was always in heels), and I swear that they based that TV commercial on how she would call my brother in for dinner (“Annnthony!”). She passed away last October, five days before I left for Nepal. I returned to NY to celebrate her life and then boarded the plane for a journey that would change my own.

In my backpack, I carried two of her prayer cards: a laminated version with a picture of the Blessed Mother looking down with love upon three children, and a paper one with a solitary image of the Virgin Mary. Mary was my grandmother’s lodestar, her namesake, and in her final years, who she remembered her own mother to be. It is because of my grandmother that my daughter carries the same name.

Two days after my grandmother’s funeral, I found myself crouching on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, the gateway to The Beyond for the Hindu community in Nepal. A continuous stream of funeral pyres burn here, releasing into the waters the remnants of the dead, and are then re-lit over and over again, burning at the base of the Shree Pashupatinath Temple. In my hand was the paper prayer card, Mary looking out into an unseen distance. I thanked my grandmother for her love and devotion. I promised to always remember that “blood is thicker than water”, and to keep my eyes out for a “decent” girlfriend for my single brother—and then I let the card be carried away with the ashes of so many others in the waters of the Bagmati.

Bagmati River, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2015

Bagmati River, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2015 – photo credit: Sahadev Panday

Despite the fact that I was able to perform my good-bye ceremony in one of the most sacred places on the planet, it wasn’t until I was hiking through the foothills of the Himalayas that I encountered my grandmother in the afterlife. As we marched through one tiny village after another, we came across so many lovely, yet somewhat solemn individuals. Always smiling, they kept mostly to themselves, a resultance of not speaking our language I’d assumed. But rounding the corner one warm morning, we came across an ardent, ageless crone who we heard before we saw. We met what could only be described as my Nepali grandmother.

My Nepali Grandmother, Annapurna Range, Nepal, 2015

My Nepali Grandmother, Annapurna Range, Nepal, 2015

Also a nonagenarian, this woman called us over to show us her broken eyeglasses. Her fingers, bent by time and arthritis, pointed at each of us with aggression, while she animatedly explained to our guide that her daughter had left to go breed a bull in another village and she needed new glasses. She was hard of hearing, but sharp as a tack and had something to say about each of us. She had the same demanding attitude, the same crooked fingers, the same “what in the Hell do you know!” gestures as she waved us away, annoyed that we didn’t have any glasses to give her. I quietly sidled up to her and held her hand as she talked, expecting her to impart some wisdom or have a spark of recognition for me—for clearly she was my grandmother in another time and a very faraway place—but there was none. She took no notice of me and barely registered that I was touching her at all. I was okay with that. I had received far more than I ever expected and was grateful for the opportunity to see that my grandmother could live on in unexpected ways.

This past week, my grandmother’s cousin and her closest friend, also passed away. It was no surprise when I received the call. Nonina, as she was known in the family, was as fierce and Italian as Grandma, and together they had so much deliciousness to offer the world, and a lot to say about it too. Where Grandma held expertise in food (though Nonina was no slouch), Nonina knew her fashion, and thanks to her, as a kid I was dressed in the very best chiffons and polyesters that the 70’s had to offer. Her children were her life, as she would tell you over and over again, and there was not an award, a performance or a Halloween costume that would pass without her inspection. Now that she is gone, the world is a little dimmer, but I can only imagine the party happening now that she is home.

After Nepal, I am excited to see how Nonina will show up again. I look forward to the unexpected moment when I hear two older ladies arguing and instantly think of Grandma and Nonina. And I’m curious to see where I’ll encounter someone who refers to me as, “Doll”. While I miss them both very much, I can’t wait until they visit me once again.

Grandma and Nonina, Oct. 12, 2002

Grandma and Nonina, Oct. 12, 2002 – photo credit: Joseph Schuyler

 

 

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